A new literary editor looks among his acquaintance for potential reviewers. There was no one I approached more confidently in 1985 than Juliet Townsend (who died on 29 November). She had been a friend for 25 years and run a bookshop since 1977 with her husband John. They had looked over my own books to see what could and should be sold and sighed heavily when The Ingoldsby Legends appeared — apparently there is a copy in almost every English country house and no demand at all.
Townsend (pictured left in 1991) wrote an excellent children’s book on the Indian Mutiny, Escape from Meerut, and this neatly combined her two main subjects. On India, and in particular Rudyard Kipling, she had long been an expert (her father wrote his biography). Always eager to be enthusiastic and without a drop of malice, she championed him as his reputation ebbed and returned. At the same time, however, she was too clear-sighted not to see his faults and too honest not to mention them — as in ‘Kipling’s character with its extraordinary contrast of coarseness and sensitivity is reflected in his writing’. There is a sort of good, clear writing which flows from having complete confidence in your grasp of the material and your views on it without wishing in any way to show off; this she had. The reader could trust her.
On the other hand there were jokes and anecdotes: if she was reviewing a biography of Somerset Maugham and she had once, during a pillow-fight, knocked a full jug of orange juice over the immaculate upholstery of the Villa Mauresque, she saw no reason not to mention it. Just the thing for The Spectator. Lord lieutenants (she was one herself), Georgette Heyer (who wrote, according to Townsend, ‘the best description of the battle of Waterloo in print’ — though it may have been surpassed this year) and Northamptonshire (she had written the Shell Guide to it) were other subjects on which it was natural to turn to her.
Every autumn in The Spectator she wrote an authoritative guide to the best of the year’s children’s books, and for which age each was suitable. Her own taste was for ripping yarns of an old-fashioned nature (Rider Haggard and the now obscure Teddy Lester school stories), but she was discerning and enthusiastic on contemporary work too, hailing The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls as a publishing triumph.
All this was fitted into a busy life both public and private and she occasionally referred to me as a slave-driver. Nevertheless, she will be greatly missed both as a friend and a reviewer.
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